Born around 1842, Billy Kersands was the most popular Black comedian of the late-19th century specializing in minstrel shows.
In addition to comedy, he was a talented dancer, singer, and acrobat. Kersands could also play a number of instruments making him the ultimate entertainer. Because he trafficked in blackface shows and racial stereotypes to entertain white audiences, he remains a figure viewed with some scrutiny a century after his death.
Starting out in the 1860s, Billy Kersands would become a part of various minstrel groups. In was in this early stage that he learned the ins and outs of traveling performance and picked up experience. Times would change as Black minstrelsy became big.
Kersands had his first brush as a big act during an 1872 England tour with Sam Hague’s Georgia Minstrels. In this troupe, he performed with other popular Black minstrels of the time. When the troupe was taken over by Charles Callender that year he saw better pay and became better billing. By 1875, he became a marquee act.
As a part of Callender’s Georgia Minstrels, Kersands saw a big bump in pay from $15 a week in 1879 to $80 a week by 1882. Kersands’ career really took off as he based himself out of the American South and played to Black and mostly white audiences.
Billy Kersands turned this success in his favor in 1885, forming Kersands’ Minstrels. This troupe featured a marching band which Kersands viewed as the best ever and even put up $1,000 for any minstrel group that could beat them. He had a number of acts he did with his minstrel shows. The most famous was “Old Aunt Jemima” which inspired Aunt Jemima pancakes.
While he did get an opportunity to perform in the big money east coast shows in 1904, Billy Kersands was always more comfortable playing in the southern market. He was a multiple act threat who could do it all and could easily find a place in the now popular vaudeville shows. Having remained in the minstrel scene for so long, he knew his money was in the South and that his routines and acts would get over in the region.
Kersands performed for years aafterwardbefore passing away in 1915.